Barbecue, Beer, Wine and Song Ingredients of Their Fame
By Bernadette Cahill
The owners and operators of one of the High Country’s most successful restaurants are set to hand over the reins after more than forty years of feeding and entertaining a long, varied succession of customers since they opened in 1980.
Butch Triplett and Jim Houston signed the papers last Wednesday morning on the deal that transfers their business and part of their land on the 321 Bypass to Ethan Anderson of the Pedalin’ Pig BBQ of Boone and Banner Elk. Their last day as owners and maitres d’ of Woodlands – the famous barbecue and music destination in Blowing Rock – is Thursday, August 12, 2021, the day that closes more than forty years of history.
Butch and Jim partnered for the Woodlands venture back in 1979, when business names like P.B. Scott’s, Sonny’s Grill, Sundown Times and Coffey’s Restaurant enlivened the High Country for people from all over. The two hatched the idea of Woodlands when beer and wine bars were under siege to become restaurants – because of P.B. Scott’s.
P.B. Scott’s Music Hall was so successful in Blowing Rock – the only town where alcohol was then allowed in Watauga, Avery, Ashe and Caldwell – by attracting performers from all over and crowds of college kids from Boone, it raised eyebrows, provoked mutterings and mumblings and spawned reaction in the mountain village. True: P.B. Scott’s could be loud – “Not when the doors were closed!” protested Jim; but the kids outside drinking, smoking and with blaring boomboxes were loud. “Poor Mrs. Walker” next door was deafened.
“So, when P.B. Scott’s came along, they started to try and get rid of it,” said Butch. “The town passed a law you had to sell 51% food to sell beer and wine too and somehow Grubstake Saloon were the ones going to Court over how much food we sold, I guess because we were the first ones in line. Charlie Clement, the lawyer he told me 100 times, ‘Y’all should be thanking me every day for passing that law.’”
Butch had been a businessman in Blowing Rock since earlier in the 1970s. “I was running a produce stand and a beer store and we sold gas. I put a drive-through window at the back of the store, so that Baptists could buy alcohol without being seen,” he chortled.
He would take orders for produce from local restaurants, drive to the farmer’s market at Asheville, sleep overnight in his van, return to town and sell the supplies, making enough of a profit to cover his own costs for his produce stand.
“There was a period of time when Butch and I worked day and night except for Sunday night,” Gina his wife said, for they had soon graduated to the Grubstake Saloon selling beer and wine, which the 51% food regulation challenged.
“We didn’t have to sell food or anything, but we did,” Butch said. “We served burritos and Fraser’s Frozen Barbecue. Because of the new law, “I was thinking of going to Raleigh [but] I’d go down to Coffey’s then and Jim was bartending [and] we talked about barbecuing. It was crazy, and I said to Jim, “Do you really want to start a barbecue place? He said yes. I said, you give me X amount of money and we’ll sweep and paint and change the name and put up a sign, ‘Grubstakes Inc. doing business as Woodlands Inc.’ and we did a little remodeling and cleaned it up.”
“My story’s a little different,” interjects Jim. “Butch had the gas station. I was coming in here a little bit at the Grubstake and I just said to Butch one day, ‘Have you thought about opening a restaurant?’”
“We used to come in and drink with you. You were bartending and we talked about it then,” says Butch.
“When we first talked about it we were sitting right in here. We were sitting in Grubstake Saloon.”
The two partners laugh as their stories contradict.
“Either way. It doesn’t matter where we were,” says Butch.
“That’s how I got in the business,” said Jim.
So Woodlands began because they had to sell food in order to sell beer and wine.
“We started hammering nails in ’79 and we got the doors open in May – I tracked it down through Ken [Ketchie’s] Mountain Times to May 16, 1980,” he says.
Woodlands’ name came through “a crazy story,” says Butch. “I went to I think it was Salem, Massachusetts for the little band called Fried Chicken and Watermelon. I went just for the heck of it and we went to … Essex and there was a place there [called] Woodlands. We’d go in and eat clam chowder all the time and they kept cooked lobsters in one of those old metal co-cola crates and he’d take a grease pencil and write on them what the price of the lobster was and then they’d take the tails and they’d take the shell off and deep fry them for just a second or two. And we went there every day and then we’d walk down to the beach so we could go back and find how much the price of the lobster was. Anyhow, that was Woodlands.”
They had no problems using the name of another business. “Of course, we were barbecue, we weren’t fish,” says Butch. “But about 15 years, 10 years later, Gina and I went to a wedding in Maine so we went to Massachusetts to look for Woodlands. We found it, but it wasn’t Woodlands, it was Woodmun’s. So we got the name wrong, we were safe.”
In those early days, “we could cook about maybe sixty to eighty pounds of meat. We went to South Carolina and bought some cookers, they were called PDQ cookers and after that we started getting these other big cookers. We had the PDQ cookers on the back porch and we were doing all of it – making the barbecue, chopping the slaw. We had a buffalo chopper, we would run everything through that, chopping the meat by hand,” explained Butch. They had help from a couple of staff, a bartender and waitress …
“We cooked for years,” said Gina.
“Yeah, we cooked for years. Now we can cook almost a ton of meat at a time.”
With Woodlands off and running, barbecue cooking out on the porch, suddenly Woodlands was growing. People liked what Butch and Jim were doing.
“But Blowing Rock’s the only place you can sell alcohol,” said Butch. “So we had to keep somebody at the front door. It was mostly college kids then because 18 was the drinking age. We had to let two people in, two people out for a while.”
Jim shows a group photo of 1983. They’re all college students. It’s from an early customer, along with a note: “Just want to thank you for a great business.”
In the busy restaurant, beers were 65 cents, draughts 50 cents. “And we had 25 cents Happy Hour, which we cut out after a while and had a special all day,” says Butch: another regulation had come in. “They thought people just before [Happy Hour is] over would order five or six beers and they made a law: you can’t sell anybody more than two beers at one time, or two drinks, or whatever. We were still just beer and wine then.”
During the next 11 years, they added on several times – a prep room downstairs, the big bar, added on to the back of the kitchen. In those distant days before Outback was there, they were trying to buy more land, with eyes on parking. Eventually, after “real good neighbors” Outback came in, they took up an offer they couldn’t refuse for remaining adjacent land.
Ever since the old Grubstakes days, Mexican food was on the menu, and remained there along with the tons of barbecue. Then 11 years on, disaster struck: fire. The story made USA Today: “Famous local eatery burnt by arson.”
“It all started in October of 1990,” explained Jim. It was a boy – just a kid who was dating this girl but the girl was working for us,” said Jim. “We didn’t pay much attention. We just thought it was boy and girl trouble,” but the boy became problematic to them – in fact he had quite a few run-ins with the police, so Jim called him in and told him, “I don’t think we want you in here.”
The boy smooth-talked his way out of that encounter – “I listened to him and believed him and then it turned out everything he told me was a lie,” said Jim. But then he began harassing Jim and Butch through their business.
“Then he came over here by himself one Thursday night, Friday morning and crawled underneath the building and lit a fire,” said Jim. “But it melted the plastic pipes.”
“It was right under a sink, so that put the fire out,” said Butch.
“We thought it was an electrical fire. It didn’t dawn on any of us.” added Jim. “Then he came back on Sunday night. Well, when he came back, the preacher’s daughter saw him over here and she said that when he came round the building, he was on fire.
Apparently, the arsonist had taken a sprayer from Woodlands, came back on the Sunday night and sprayed the building to set it on fire, inadvertently spraying himself and when he set the fire, he set himself alight too. He spent four years in jail for the arson and he spent more time in jail for other crimes. Jim heard some of these details only in recent years when the lead FBI investigator of the cases involving the culprit turned up in Woodlands as a customer and reminisced with Jim about the case, including a “trail of women” the young man had left behind.
The fire, therefore, was one huge setback in the history of Woodlands; but another was when Butch and Jim didn’t have enough fire insurance. Their umbrella policy “kind of got us through,” though, explained Butch. “It paid us for the office, for key employees, to haul the trash off.
“But what really got us through was when we just set a cooker out here on the road and made sandwiches and stuff. There was a line-up past the Holiday Inn. If they bought any pig paraphernalia, we gave them a free T-shirt.
“And the musicians came and were playing all day,” he added – musicians who had been a daily mainstay and key feature of Woodlands since the start, attracting a succession of different audiences, such as people favoring Mexican food, the college crowd, locals and then the summer people. Butch’s lifelong love of music came to Woodlands with him. Sometimes single acts, sometimes groups.
“We were the first to do music,” said Jim, adding that Woodlands had a lot of P.B. Scott musicians.
So after the fire, Butch and Jim got to do a do-over, changing the position of the restaurant somewhat, putting in two dining rooms instead of one and locating the kitchen downstairs. They went to computers and changed the cooking method, using the Southern Pride cooker.
“After the fire, the business got better,” said Jim.
And that’s the way it’s been since 1991. They don’t know the number of employees they have had since 1980, but Jim, pointing out a large group photo says that it is the best indicator of how many they must have had – and they were all their friends.
“Some years we’ll generate 100 W-2s,” said Gina. “We have a lot of part-timers, a lot of seasonal, but there are some who have stayed with us. She recalls two employees, one recently retired, who together worked with them for 72 years in all.
“We are still in touch with a lot of them,” she said, referring to the Woodlands family. “There have been quite a few marriages and numerous baby showers” for the kids and grandkids of people who worked there.
It is quite an achievement for two men years ago when they were much younger and just wanted to make money, who were forced into the food business through regulations about selling beer and wine.
Forty-one years have passed since Woodlands opened on May 16, 1980. Thirty have gone by since the fire, and Woodlands has leapt from success to success. But time never stands still. Butch will be 80 next birthday; Jim is already 70. Covid closed them down for three months.
“It hit us when we were in our slow months,” said Jim.
Other things have changed. With alcohol available almost all over now, students don’t have to travel to Blowing Rock. The right buyer was hovering in the wings. All these factors added up to a decision and they felt, it is just time to let the business go.
“Yes, I’ll miss this place, there will be parts of it, I’ll miss,” Butch says, in the middle of some reminiscences about the acts that have played there. And he adds, in parting, to the countless patrons he can remember from all the years, “Thank you very much.”
“Thank you very much,” echoes Jim. We’ve enjoyed serving you for the last 40 years. Blowing Rock has done us good.”
But a customer had the last word. Butch was at the bar recently, and a patron asked if it was true the parting of the ways was approaching. “Why?” he asked.
“Forty years is about long enough,” says Butch.
“No it’s not,” says the patron. “You need to stay here.”
Catering and the Grahams
Back in the old Grubstakes days, “we did a couple of pig roasts every summer,” said Butch. This led not only to the world of barbecue, but to the world of catering, which is the other side of Woodlands’ restaurant business.
“Gina and I catered a party for Franklin Graham when they were laying the blocks for the Samaritan’s Purse,” reminisced Butch. “He was feeding the workers and we catered for 2,000 people “ They have catered for other Graham events: Billy’s offices; the statue of Billy inside the library; and Billy’s funeral.
“When we did the library Presidents Clinton, Carter, and Bush Sr. and Mrs Bush were there, he said.
Woodlands’ essential character, like in all outstanding barbecue restaurants, lies in the sauce. “We made all our own sauces. It’s got its own style and flavor,” said Butch.
“When we first decided to do this, Butch and I went to barbecue places all over the place before we opened,” reminisced Jim. “We went to Tennessee and would talk to the ladies. ‘Can you tell us how you do your beans?’” we’d ask.
“Boys, do you think I’m stupid?” they’d reply.
“They’d take you and show you how they cooked the meat, and they’d show you where they cooked it and anything like that, but when you asked them how they made their sauces, that was the end of the conversation.”
Christmas Party Pictures
Woodlands started a tradition a few years after they opened of having a staff Christmas Party picture made that they would run as a back page ad in The Mountain Times at the end of the year. Here are some of those pictures from over the years.